Golf has one constant – the need for consistency.
[Lesson One will be repeated, consistently, throughout the blog, coming back to it every few weeks, as a reminder of what is most important in playing the game of golf.]
If π is the constant of circles, e is the constant of compound interest (NB: look it up), g is the constant acceleration of gravity, c is the speed of light, the constant of the universe, then consistency is the constant of golf.
Jack Nicklaus won 18 major championships; finished in the top 2 37 times, and finished in the top 5 57 times. He won majors over a 25 year period – 1962 to 1986. He almost won over a 27 year period, if Ben Hogan is correct. From the 1970 Masters through the 1978 British Open, he finished out of the top ten 3 times. He finished out of the top 4 only 10 times. In 1971-1972, he missed winning four majors in a row by one shot (the 1972 British Open). He won two majors in a year six different times.
In 1960 at Cherry Hills Golf Club outside Denver, three men played in the greatest US Open ever played. The aging Ben Hogan, yips and all, came to the 71st hole tied for the lead. A 30 year-old Arnold Palmer made up 7 shots on the final 18 holes to win his second major that year. And the 20 year-old Jack Nicklaus, playing with Hogan the final day, finished in second, by two shots. Hogan would say, “I played with the boy who should have won the US Open today.”
And so on.
Jack Nicklaus had a video in the 1980s in which he tried to teach “one basic swing.” He always tried to hit a fade “to take out half the fairway.” Golf “is a lot easier that
way,” he would say.
Hogan’s search for consistency was in obtaining precision shot-making. One might call it a tactical approach. He wanted each shot to be exact. That’s a tall order. You can read about Hogan’s hard, enduring work to be consistent here. It is no easy task.
Of course, one part is about being able to repeat certain shots. As the story goes, Jack Grout, Nicklaus’ teacher, made him hit thousands of balls without ever letting his weight shift outside the inner soles of his feet. We will later discuss why this was so important — it seems almost hard to imagine given the way Nicklaus — as one golf pundit put it – “crashed” into the ball, nearly coming out of his shoes. All those thousands of balls had their effect, without doubt. (As I say, we will later discuss what the effect was.) Smart man, that Jack Grout.
Nicklaus, whether he knew it or not, had another, important approach to a repeatable, consistent game. By “eliminating half the fairway,” Nicklaus took into account one of the important maxims about golf: golf is a game of misses. In some sense, it is exactly the opposite approach. (In others the same, but I will hold off.) Nicklaus wanted to know that if he aimed left of target and it faded the right amount, he’d be dead on. But he knew he might not be just right. So he knew if he hit it straight, it might be 30 feet left of target; if he faded it too much, it might be 30 feet right of target. On average, it would be on target. Hole after hole, averages add up.
There was another method to his design. Nicklaus was a very strong player.
A teaching pro told me years ago (about 20 years older than Nicklaus) that Nicklaus fought a hook as a teen amateur. A strong player with a hook is a dangerous thing, even outside a boxing ring. As the saying goes, “you can talk to a slice, but a hook just won’t listen.” A strong man who hooks it will tend to hit it into deep trouble. An 8 just won’t do for a score at the highest levels of golf. Nicklaus therefore reduced, in essence, the riskiness of the shots he took – or made the standard deviation tighter than if he had played a straight ball. For if one plays a straight ball, and misses left, the misses will be bigger (hooks) than if one plays a fade and misses right (slices).
My own view is that this is an under-appreciated aspect of Nicklaus’ game. (There are others – much like Hogan, he was a complete golfer.) One of the lessons about consistency that Nicklaus demonstrates is that a consistent swing is a swing you can play with – good or bad. It is much more important than a swing that is good some of the time.
A personal story illustrates. I was playing in a match play tournament when I was 23. I was two holes up with four to play. I almost had beaten my opponent on the hole before the one we were about to play, to go up three holes with four to play. He made a brilliant save; I muffed a fairly easy par. Something suddenly happened on the next hole, but not to me. My opponent had a brain storm, to my chagrin.
On the next tee, I see my opponent hit a big slice down a par 5, but he starts the ball left, over the out of bounds on the left. It ends up in the middle of the fairway. It turned out that he had a slice; had been talked out of playing with it; and went back to his “best” swing. I missed a key 4-footer on the next to last hole to win; he tied it up on the last hole; and I lost on the second play-off hole, he having reverted for those last six holes to what was obviously an ‘old’ swing. Smart man him. I’d thought I’d won. Not so smart young man, me.
Is my point here that one should stick with a slice, if you have one? No. My point is that you should play the swing you can play consistently, best, so that when you are on the course, your shots are predictable. On the practice range, you can be unpredictable. On the course, you have to be predictable to score.
Whether Jack knew what he was doing, strategically, all those years, in this detail, I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. I am guessing he knew better than anyone imagines, but he doesn’t seem like the type that likes to talk about himself more than is appropriate. He did play like he knew one thing: consistency is key to good golf. It is struggle, as we shall discuss later, but it is the key.